(Jan. 12) PASCO, Wash. — Washington apple, onion, pear and potato grower-shippers are focusing their efforts to find funding for produce rail cars at the federal level.

The Washington state Legislature in May passed a bill giving the state the ability to establish a produce rail car pool. The state, however, still doesn’t have the money to properly fund the program, said Karen Bonaudi, assistant executive director of the Washington State Potato Commission, Moses Lake.

“It was critical this year,” she said. “We were getting calls from packers and shippers all the time, saying their potatoes wouldn’t make it to market if we don’t get this rail car system set up.”

The state’s produce industry is trying to garner $2 million in federal support to refurbish used refrigerated rail cars.

Bart Connors, a salesman for Basin Gold Cooperative Inc., said the effort is important because the lack of produce rail cars harms grower-shippers’ ability to send product to the markets east of the Mississippi River.

The major freight railroads have been shrinking and changing their produce rail car fleet, said Pat Boss, the commission’s executive director. He said the industry is hoping to get 200 rail cars on the ground that can be scattered around the state’s production regions.

“The railroads are really favoring frozen commodities,” he said. “That’s more year-round, while produce is seasonal. The railroads think the business is better in frozen. We want to see the railroads cater to the frozen industry, but this unfortunately is being done at the expense of the fresh shippers. We have to figure a way to maintain our fresh shipping infrastructure.”

Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway Co., Fort Worth, Texas, is retiring 1,000 of its 1,700-car fleet, Boss said. The remaining 700 are new, larger models that are too high to fit the limited clearance of produce receivers in older East Coast markets.

Only a few shippers can use the larger cars, Boss said.